Hidden Perspectives

Bringing the Bible Out of the Closet

Orange is the New Bible Interview: Jo Merrygold and Lucy Skerratt

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JoandLu-pola1. Hello! Tell us about yourself…who are you and what do you do?

Jo: I’m Jo Merrygold, and I’m a PhD student at Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. My research focusses on reading the patriarchal narratives in Genesis cis-piciously. In other words, I read the characters genderqueerly and am interested in the effects of biblical portrayals of gender on contemporary discourses. I also co-founded the Orange is the New Bible project with Lucy Skerratt and am really excited to see where we can take it.

Lucy: My name is Lucy Skerratt, I’m the co-organiser of this conference and a MA student in Biblical Studies at Kings College London. I graduated from Leeds in 2015 with a degree in Theology and Religious Studies (where I met Jo) and have since then made it down to the ‘Big Smoke’ to seek my ‘fortune’* I’m an Essex girl originally so being loud is an inherent part of my personality, and that particularly transcends into my academic life. Biblical studies for me is political, bolshy, enthusiastic, rebellious, resistive and queer – and that’s where I locate myself, a socialist gay woman playing with the Bible and trying to make sense of the world through it.

*suggestions of how to seek said ‘fortune’ are very welcome.

2. Where the fuck did all this come from?

Lucy: A few months ago Jo (my co-organiser) and I were discussing OITNB over supper…or maybe it was in the pub (I can’t remember),and I suddenly had an idea, “wouldn’t it be cool to link biblical studies and Orange is the New Black” *bam!* We laughed about it for a while, and then both thought…hang on, we’re onto something here. I also dreamt about a collaboration (always a good sign) and before we knew it, we started to take the idea far more seriously; many emails were exchanged, risks were taken and through the support of Katie Edwards, Jess Keady and Johanna Stiebert (to name a few) here we are! Jo is a marvellous co-organiser who is also an excellent friend. I hope this is only the start of a very special #doublepairit relationship!

Jo: Well… Lucy and I both studied at the University of Leeds but Lucy was in the year below me, so I didn’t really get to know her until my MA year. We bonded over our mutual interest in issues of gender, sexuality, politics and the Hebrew Bible, and our appreciation of Orange is the New Black. Following the launch of season 3 we had many long and passionate conversations about the stories when Lucy remarked about how the women reminded her of biblical characters. Some days later I got a text which, in hindsight, had really quite a massive impact. Something like,
‘Jo, I dreamt we did an Orange as the New Black and Biblical Matriarchs collaboration.’
To which I replied, ‘Let’s do it!’ The rest, as they say, was history!

3. How did you get involved with Orange is the New Bible?

Jo: After acknowledging we wanted to do *something* with our cunning plan, the question then became what, and how could we do it. We discussed pipe dreams and realistic options, how we could progress them and who might be involved. Over a gin or two we established that we really wanted to share this with other people and see just what could be done within the theme of Orange is the New Black meets the Bible. We sounded out Katie, my PhD supervisor, who was unbelievably excited and keen to see what we wanted to do to make it happen. As we’d both participated in the Student Biblical Studies day at the University of Leeds, we thought that format would be great to encourage people who may never have presented – or not on the topics associated with OITNBible – to do something fun and thought provoking. We have more plans and hopes, but even the interest so far has far exceeded anything we could have imagined!

Spoilers below

4. What interests you about Orange is the New Black and the Bible?

Lucy: I think because OITNB is so political, and that’s what biblical studies is. I’m from the very contemporary postmodern school of thought when it comes to TRS (many thanks to Leeds) where we were encouraged to play with the biblical texts and rebel within, and against them. The characters in OITNB are also trying to make sense of themselves and their locations in a place that is stifling, sometimes frightening, and isolating, knowing that at some point they’ve all done something society has deemed as ‘wrong’ and so they become outcasts. Still living and interacting, but in a separate world from where the vast majority of us frequent. The Hebrew Bible (my specialism) is full of individuals, families, and communities being seen as outcasts who are cut off from society, and the hopes, goals and aspirations that come along with that. I primarily want to show that the Bible can be read in so many different ways for so many different people, and there are lots of similarities that are present, we just haven’t explored yet.

Jo: There are so many ways Orange is the New Black relates to the Bible that interest me! Maybe this is why I was so keen to develop the project. Orange is the New Black presents the stories of multiple women who, due to their status as prisoners, are acknowledged as fallible and even potentially unpleasant. Despite this, or even because of it, they are presented as rounded, well developed and sometimes controversial characters none of whom is entirely devoid of redeeming features while even the most apparently innocent may need reconsidering the more we know of them! But then what does my celebration of OITNB have to do with the Bible? Well, for me, most of the women in the show are presented with little detail and characterization – rather like many of the biblical women. It is certainly possible to see the Biblical women reproduced in the OITNB characters, but I am also interested to see how the contemporary characters can impact the way we reread their earlier counterparts.

5. How can Orange is the New Bible relate to your everyday work?

Jo: OITNB has provoked lots of discussion and consideration of the way we understand gender, sex and sexuality – and how those topics intersect with class, race, affluence, education, and age to name but a few facets of identity. It highlights the way in which discourses of gender, sex and sexuality impact the lives of the characters, and the similarities between the biblical characters provides incentive to look afresh at the ancient narratives. This is exactly what I’m doing in my PhD and, rather like the OITNB characters, I’m trying to challenge the expectations with which approach and read the stories.

Lucy: In terms of the work I do, I’m particularly interested in the Hebrew Bible and contemporary understandings of sexual health (STD’s/HIV), whether that’s through analogy or through the purity laws in Leviticus. I have a real soft spot for grief texts, and all the complexities that go along with that so have spent a lot of time working with Lamentations, and more recently Ezekiel. I feel that the work I do interacts with the very depths of what it means to be human, and so does Orange is the new Black.

6. OITNBible is a Hidden Perspectives project. How do you think OITNBible can help ‘bring the Bible out of the closet’?

Lucy: I think OITNBible can bring the Bible out of the closest simply by the fact that it’s a queer show. (By queer I don’t just mean LGBT*). Its excellent and fun writing gives the viewer a lot of space to explore how they construct identities about themselves and others in the world, challenging stigma and bringing together people who wouldn’t normally interact with one another.

Jo: OITNBible seems a perfect fit for Hidden Perspectives. It showcases stories which are otherwise hidden or obscured, and which particularly relate to issues of gender, sex and sexuality. What makes it all the more interesting for me is the way that OITNBible provides a way to look at the impact of the Bible in contemporary discourses and narratives as well as allowing us to look at the way those very discourses and narratives impact our own reading! I just love it!

7. If you’ve seen the TV show, tell us about one character and why they interest you?

Jo: It’s hard to narrow down to just one character! I really like Taystee and think she is fascinating. Whether it is the complex relationship with Vee, with whom she struggles to assert her own identity and the ensuing tension between her social group, or the bond with Poussey, she’s someone who just keeps presenting new sides of her. I love her passion for the library, her willingness to care for others and her absolute shock at the suggestion of becoming mother to her group. The relationship between Vee and Taystee reminds me of the story of Ruth and Naomi, but I’ll explore more about that in the future hopefully.

Lucy: There are many characters that interest me throughout the series but I resonant particularly with Poussey. She is a particularly funny and principled woman whose story and unrequited love for her best friend (and fellow inmate) Taystee is beautiful and also heartbreaking. I think what I’m interested in most is that ‘good’, decent and honest people, just like you and me end up incarcerated and trapped within a penal system and we cannot ignore this, or perceive them as ‘other’. OITNB and particularly Poussey allow us to remember this, that it wouldn’t take much for us to end up in the same position.

8. What other projects are you working on and/or what is next for you?

Lucy: I hope to finish my MA in 2016 and then proceed towards studying for a PhD in contemporary biblical studies. At the moment I am working on a book chapter relating to rape culture and religion (eds. Caroline Blyth and Emily Colgan) which will be a comparative study of HIV, Lamentations and the film Precious.

Jo: I’m working on a journal article based on my MA dissertation about genderqueering Jacob and developing a widening participation event for prospective students about the Bible and television. These projects are related to my PhD work and to my general interest in the gender-subversive readings of the Hebrew Bible. I’m always keen to explore new and varied ways of engaging with these issues and I hope to keep OITNBible going too.

9. What would you like to see OITNBible do next?

Jo: What couldn’t it do next?! Johanna raised interesting challenge about the possibilities to engage with social justice issues associated with prisons. In the last week, a trans woman died in the men’s prison around the corner from my house. There are also huge issues associated with prisons and prison reform, which need addressing. OITNBible offers encouragement to get more involved in social justice and prison welfare.

Lucy and I are already hoping to produce an edited volume based on the papers from the OITNBible conference and then develop a further extended conference which can attract more speakers. This is just the start!

Lucy: I’d love to see OITNBible go from strength to strength and grow into movement that supports social change through biblical studies. Jo and I would also like to take this further and host a two day event in the future as well as building a network who can meet regularly! The dream would be able to edit a book on OITNBible so we can reach more people, especially the younger generation of potential biblical scholars, which I feel at 21 I have a responsibility to do.

10. Is there anything else you’d like to say about OITNBible at the moment?

Lucy: I’d like to thank Jo for helping to make what at first seemed a far-fetched idea, that got many laughs initially, to be a reality! She is an excellent #doublepairit partner! I’m also really excited for February, receiving all your abstracts and meeting lots of new people who are excited about the future of contemporary interdisciplinary biblical studies.

Jo: While it may have started as a bit of a joke between friends, the response we’ve received from everyone has been unbelievable. Thank you! I hope that people will continue to be interested in the project, and the work it leads to.

Author: Hidden Perspectives

A research project within the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at The University of Sheffield.

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